By Ellen Finnie


This is a joint post by guest Jeff Kosokoff, Assistant University Librarian for Collection Strategy, Duke University, and IO author Ellen Finnie, MIT Libraries.

From the perspective of academic libraries and many researchers, we have an unhealthy scholarly information ecosystem. Prices consistently rise at a rate higher than inflation and much faster than library budgets, increasingly only researchers in the most well-financed organizations have legitimate access to key publications, too few businesses control too much of the publishing workflow and content data, energy toward realizing the promise of open access has been (as Guédon describes it)  “apprehended” to protect publisher business models, and artificial scarcity rules the day. Massive workarounds like SciHub and #icanhaspdf have emerged to help with access, but such rogue solutions seem unsustainable, may violate the law, and most certainly represent potential breaches of license agreements. While many of the largest commercial publishers are clinging to their highly profitable and unhealthy business models, other more enlightened and mission-driven publishers — especially scholarly societies — recognize that the system is broken and are looking to consider new approaches. Often publishers are held back by the difficulty and risk in moving from the current model to a new one. They face legitimate questions about whether a new funding structure would work, and how a publisher can control the risks of transition.

In 2016, Ellen asked us to consider the metaphor of choosing organic products as a way to understand the choices we in academia make about where and how to publish, and what we might subscribe to in libraries.  The notion was that we vote for the food system we want when we spend our money on food; that if one wants to affect a reduction in the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, one should buy organic. Consumer choices shape the market. Similarly, when we choose to spend our library budgets to support publishing models that are healthy, we are moving the needle towards a better system.

Perhaps we can again look to the food system for a helpful metaphor here, and to show us a path forward. It is impossible for a farmer to instantly convert a conventionally-farmed piece of land into one that produces organic products. It takes time for the soil to be cleansed of the inorganic, and during this time, produce grown cannot be sold as organic. The USDA says:

“making the transition to organic production and handling takes both time and planning. Implementing an organic system requires a tactful approach to successfully carry out common agricultural activities, such as managing pests, building soil health, and improving livestock and herd health.”

The USDA has been studying how it might support this transition through means such as offering labeling to farmers who have committed to a transition process. The idea is that when you buy produce labeled as “transitional”, you help support a farmer moving from an unhealthy to healthy production model. The Organic Trade Association has suggested such a transition would encompass two growing seasons. It is critical for a farmer to have an income during the shift, and being able to to accurately and reliably label produce during that period as transitional provides a viable economic passage from one farming model to another.

Similar attempts to transition scholarly publications are underway. When Martin Eve was initially seeking support for the Open Library of the Humanities, an open access journal platform now including 23 titles, he asked supporting libraries to maintain their extant subscriptions through traditional publishers such as Wiley for five years. We needed to spend a little more for a few years to help the publishers make the transition.  

Another example is Libraria, which asks libraries to support a transition for publishers committed to flipping journals to full OA, promising that: “the subscription fees that libraries are currently paying to access member journals will be directed to the cooperative in order to support the journals in moving open access”. OLH and Libraria thus aim to provide a mechanism and viable economic path for transformation in the  ecosystem as we shift towards sustainable open access.

Transformative agreements are another transitional pathway towards more complete and sustainable OA. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s “offsetting” model is based on a formula where payments to access paywalled articles are redirected over time — as more campuses sign on to transformative agreements — towards payments for open access publication of a campus’ authored articles. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s model lays out a path to open access that involves passage through the hybrid OA landscape, with commitment to a complete transition. The University of California (UC) and others have been seeking transformative agreements with Elsevier. While the results so far have only resulted in failed negotiations and the loss of access for scholars in the UC system, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere, the insistence on a model that ensures openness and controls costs has clearly become a strong stance across this wide range of institutions. They insist on contracts that start down a transformative path, even in the face of short-term inconvenience.

Some of these transitional transformative agreements will need to focus on models other than article processing charges (APCs), as APCs are not viable for all publications, particularly where the articles are not original grant-funded research. One example is Annual Reviews’ “Subscribe to Open” program, a collaborative funding model with an aim to be sustainable. This program is the latest step in a transitional open access model Annual Reviews has been building, starting with the Annual Review of Public Health. For that title, in 2017 they used a variety of creative funding processes, including “establish[ing] a collective fund to support the publication costs for the journal to sustain long-term open access”. As one element of the transitional approach, customers who paid a 2017 subscription were asked permission to assign the payment to the collective fund.

In an era when there are widespread —and at times divisive— debates about how to achieve the aims of worldwide open access for scholarly journal publishing, we see an opportunity for unity and progress by supporting viable and transparent transitional models. To encourage such approaches, we suggest:

  • Developing a labeling system for journals in a transition to OA, based on standards regarding timetable and methods for transition. Developing and deploying such a standard could be a part of the infrastructure David Lewis calls for, and could be taken up as part of the commitment to OA infrastructure that emerged from productive conversations at the Berkeley Pathways to OA event.
  • Leveraging collections budgets to support of a wide range of transitional open access models that meet requirements for viability, trustworthiness, commitment, and transparency.
  • Requiring that transformational agreements include language committing to a transition to full OA, preferably on a timetable.
  • Seeking opportunities to engage publishers about transformative experiments and pathways well before and during contract renewal.
  • Educating and engaging and hearing your community. Such groundwork was critical at the University of California in the context of the Elsevier negotiations, as evidenced by the strongly worded memo of support for scholarly communication transformation issued by the UC academic senate.
  • Advocating on our campuses and with publishers to leverage existing institutional procurement mechanisms in order to help support these new transitional models.  We can play an important role in adapting existing systems and processes to meet new models, and in partnering with publishers to devise models that work for our campuses.

The many efforts described here to transition the scholarly communication system towards openness are only a few of those emerging on our landscape.  It is up to us, as stewards of our campus’ funds, to invest wisely — to vote with our dollars– to support models that advance our aims, giving them the opportunity to succeed.  Our investments should include support for transitional models — in particular, iterative, experimental models — that provide a pathway for more publishers to move toward a fully open, sustainable, and inclusive scholarly communication system, with its untarnished promise to accelerate science and scholarship and offer more equitable access to information and knowledge worldwide.

This is a joint post by Jeff Kosokoff, Assistant University Librarian for Collection Strategy, Duke University @JeffKosokoff & Ellen Finnie, Head, Scholarly Communications & Collections Strategy, MIT Libraries

Ellen Finnie

Leads the MIT Libraries’ scholarly communications and collections strategy, including efforts to influence models of scholarly publishing and communication in ways that increase the impact and reach of MIT’s research and scholarship and which promote open, sustainable publishing and access models. She is a strong supporter of therapy dogs in libraries!

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